What Dance Floors Can Teach Us
“Full dance floors don’t lie, neither do empty ones…” ~Sean Barth, 1989
My First Proper Life Lesson in Business and Marketing
When I was 21, I was invited by my buddy Glen to be an opening DJ (6–8 PM) at an oldies bar in my hometown. It was one of those themed places where the staff dressed up in Happy Days attire, did dance routines, and everyone had a stage name. Mine was Cougar, as evidently, my permed mullet caused people to think I looked like John ‘Cougar’ Mellencamp.
Growing up my dad was a bass player in a cover band that played a lot of blues-infused classic rock and Motown hits. Thus, while all of my middle school contemporaries were listening to Pink Floyd and Yes, I had become fascinated with the sounds created by this guy named Giorgio Moroder, best known for Donna Summer’s I Feel Love.
That foundation proved to be immensely valuable, as it allowed me to play b-sides of 45s I knew quite well, which fit the bill of this nightclub called Shout. Being the opening DJ wasn’t what I would call hard, but it sure was specific. You had to play material that was familiar enough for people to want to stay past the dinner hour, but you couldn’t touch the records that were designated for later in the evening when the headlining DJs arrived.
What I remember about the headlining DJ — Sean Barth, when he showed up it was pretty much like Moses parting the red sea as he walked down the ramp of the old Eastown Theater. When Sean arrived, the party arrived!
My work caught Sean’s attention, and as a result, he started booking me at a series of local nightclubs on a fairly regular basis. The money was pretty good, but being booked out 3–4 nights every week while a full-time college student really sort of laid the foundation of what was to come later in life. It also allowed me to start my first business as a mobile DJ, which ultimately gave me the ability to pay for my college education.
Sean had a fairly hands-off leadership style, he allowed talent to develop organically, but that one saying of his about dance floors early on made an undeniable impression.
The Journey of a DJ to an Experience Architect
Later in life, regardless of the industry, I was always working within some sort of marketing or comms role. No matter the project at hand, whether it was ACTIVESITE, TEDxGrandRapids, LaughFest, or Juice Ball… people seemed to lean into me to help them unpack complicated and nuanced efforts.
While producing a series of fashion shows called Style Battle, my dear friend Tina Derusha passively referred to me as an Experience Architect. The first time I heard her say this it about knocked me over. When I asked her to elaborate, everything she said about me, about my ability to view events and projects from a holistic top-down experience, spoke to how an architect designs a project.
“Why me” I was always asking myself. But even more importantly, where did this ability come from?
In Malcolm Gladwell’s Book Outliers he refers to something called the 10,000-hour rule… “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” In retrospect, it was at this moment in time that Gladwell’s paradigm solidified something I lived and learned in my younger years.
That said, it should be noted that a small part of what a DJ actually does is play music. “Say what, huh… what are you talking about?!”
Do the math with me here… if the average length of a song is four minutes, you play roughly 15 songs an hour. Plan for 15–30 seconds to find and cue the song, and when you factor all of that into an equation… really what a DJ is doing more than anything else, is stare at the dance floor and the room, trying to assess where to take the crowd next.
After 10,000 hours of this during my 20s, I could tell you a few things by non-verbal crowd movement alone. Where a fight might break out and with whom, who might be cheating on their significant other, and most certainly who was going home with one another.
There are times when you have become so good at this ‘room-read’ as it’s called, you’re absolutely convinced The Force is real. Yea yea, I say that tongue in cheek of course ;)
These foundational opportunities and experience proved to be immeasurably valuable with literally everything I have done in my adult life, as many in my sphere of influence have endorsed these soft skills, along with an ability to see blind spots.
Do the Dots Connect
“But how do we connect the dots” is a phrase that marketing types hear all day every day, and to be honest there is no precise methodology to arrive at this destination. Ultimately we’re talking about subjectivity more so than objectivity. Sure, KPIs can provide solid data to justify a budget, that is in turn provided to an executive; but does that really speak to a customer’s condition, never mind are their problems being solved?
I have hundreds of strange stories where these life lessons have played out in real-time, but there is one instance where Sean’s early lesson came full circle…
A few years ago during a trade show in Indianapolis, things were unnecessarily tense amongst company executives, largely because a few didn’t understand what was going on behind the scenes to deploy a show of this magnitude.
After a moment that damn near broke me in half, my long-time friend and DiscoBrunch DJ partner (who also happened to work for the same company) says to me… “Full dance floors don’t lie!”
What he was referring to, was a record number of conference attendees coming through the company’s trade show booth.
As you might imagine, hearing that comment first uttered by my mentor, now from my first DJ protege of sorts, stopped me dead in my tracks and provided a necessary reset to continue on.
The point being is sometimes you have to trust your people as much, if not more than the process itself. Said another way, you may not love the song but tell me about your dance floor.
Experiential Marketing is Everywhere
It seems everything is dubbed an experience these days, with good reason I suppose. Time is more constricted, money seems to be tighter, and with the immediate feedback social media can provide, your clients and customers are more empowered than they have ever been. Ultimately, people want to know there is value in what they spend their hard-earned dollars on.
What I learned in those early years before experience became a buzzword; when you’re dealing with nightclub owners, you only had two, maybe three weeks to prove your concept and make sure the guests appreciate the experience. It was usually on a shoestring budget, not some massive corporate capital campaign. The agility and lateral thinking skills one needed to develop working in this capacity simply can’t be overstated, I’m not sure it can even be taught outside of this environment. Although I am happy to see most major universities developing a curriculum around experiences… MSU’s Customer Experience Management program for instance.
So to come full circle here; rarely is it about just about playing the right song, it’s knowing when to play a song based on the read of the room. Whether your dance floor is literal, or for most people a metaphor… if your floor isn’t full, are you putting forth the appropriate effort to determine why it might be empty?